‘Electrification’: The Road to Higher Energy Prices
By Steve Goreham -- January 3, 2018
“Electrification calls for a massive societal transformation from gasoline to electric vehicles, from traditional power plants to wind and solar generators, and from gas heating to electric and heat pump systems. There is no evidence that this transition will have any measurable effect on global temperatures. But electrification will produce substantially higher energy prices.”
“Electrification” is the new buzz word touted by climate fighters and environmental groups. Where electrification once meant providing electricity to people, today it often means elimination of traditional fuels. But the only tangible result of green electrification policies will be higher energy prices.
Proponents of electrification intend to force transportation and heating and cooling systems to run on electricity, and eliminate the use of hydrocarbon fuels. Electric cars, electric furnaces and water heaters, and heat pumps must replace gasoline-powered vehicles and gas-fueled appliances. In addition, wind or solar systems must supply the electricity, not power plants using coal or natural gas, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan calls for a 40-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and an 80-percent reduction by 2050. Goals call for 4.2 million plug-in electric and plug-in hybrid cars on California roads by 2030, up from about 300,000 today. The plan also calls for electrification of space and water heating.
Utility Southern California Edison (SCE) recommends an even more aggressive plan. The SCE “Clean Power and Electrification Pathway” plan calls for 7 million electric cars on California roads by 2030 and for one-third of state residents to replace their gas-fired furnaces and appliances by 2030.
Nine other states promote adoption of electric cars as part of a broad electrification program. New England states are exploring “strategic electrification” in order to meet tough emissions reduction goals. In most of these efforts, cost to consumers is rarely discussed.
Electrification has become a global quest. Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom propose to ban sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2040. The Dutch government proposes to eliminate gas as a source of heating and cooking from all homes by 2050. Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Utrecht announced intentions to become “gas-less neighborhoods.”
Electrification will be expensive. Most Americans don’t want electric cars. Large subsidies from taxpayers and mandates on auto companies and consumers will be required to force adoption. Furnaces and appliances powered by heat pumps, solar, and electricity are almost always more expensive than using natural gas or propane models.
A 2017 study by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority found that only four percent of the state’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning load could cost-effectively switch to heat pumps. The study recommended mandates to place an obligation on businesses and consumers to “source a certain portion of their heating and cooling load from renewable sources.”
According to proponents of electrification, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the sourced electricity must come from renewables. Therefore, all electrification programs promote wind and solar generation systems, backed up by battery storage.
Today, the US is blessed with very low electricity costs. In 2016, the average wholesale electrical price, which is the price paid to generating facilities, ranged from only 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour in the Pacific Northwest to 3.6 cents per kW-hr in New England. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric, our traditional sources of power,deliveredmore than 90 percent of this low-cost electricity. Only 6.4 percent of our 2016 electricity came from wind and solar.
Actual costs of wind and solar systems tend to be hidden from the public, but when disclosed, can be hideously expensive. The California Solar Ranch, which began operation in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles in 2014, delivers electricity at over 15─18 cents per kW-hr, more than four times the market price. The 2013 Massachusetts solar build-out was the result of a 25 cents per kW-hr subsidy paid to commercial solar generators, boosting the total solar price to almost 30 cents per kW-hr.
But the Deepwater Wind Block Island project of Rhode Island takes first prize for outrageous renewable electricity cost. The five-turbine offshore system went into operation in 2016 at a contracted price of 23.6 cents per kW-hr, with an annual increase of 3.5 cents, placing the future price at over 40 cents per kW-hr. Who wants to pay ten times the market price for any product?
According to the Energy Information Administration, on average US electricity prices increased less than five percent during the eight years from 2008 to 2016. But over the same period, prices in nine of the twelve top wind states climbed between 13 and 37 percent, significantly higher than the national average increase. Commercial wind and solar systems are typically built far from cities, requiring new transmission lines, with costs passed on to electric rate payers. If electrification is adopted across our nation, look for escalating electricity prices.
Electrification calls for a massive societal transformation from gasoline to electric vehicles, from traditional power plants to wind and solar generators, and from gas heating to electric and heat pump systems. There is no evidence that this transition will have any measurable effect on global temperatures. But electrification will produce substantially higher energy prices.————--
Steve Goreham is an active speaker and writer on environment, business, and public policy. He is author, most recently, of the critically acclaimed primer, Outside the Green Box: Rethinking Sustainable Development.
ROOFTOP SOLAR LEASES SCARING BUYERS WHEN HOMEOWNERS SELL
Published by CFSSAdmin at August 4, 2016
June 24, 2014
Dorian Bishopp blames the solar panels on his roof for costing him almost 10 percent off the value of the home he sold in March.
That’s because instead of owning them he leased the panels from SunPower Corp., requiring the new owner of the house to assume a contract with almost 19 years remaining. He had to shave the asking price for the house in Maricopa, Arizona, to draw in buyers unfamiliar with the financing arrangement.
Leasing is driving a boom in solar sales because most require no money upfront for systems that cost thousands of dollars. That’s made solar affordable for more people, helping spur a 38 percent jump in U.S. residential installations in the past year. Since the business model only gained currency in the past two years, the details embedded in the fine print of the deals are only starting to emerge.
“Homeowners don’t understand what they’re signing when they get into this,” said Sandy Adomatis, a home appraiser in Punta Gorda, Florida, who created the industry’s standard tool for valuing the systems. “You’ve got another layer to add on top of finding a buyer for the house. It’s not a plus.”For people who own rooftop power systems, solar adds value to the home — about $25,000 for the average installation in California, according to a study in December by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, funded by the U.S. Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative.
Personal PropertyLeased systems are another story because they’re considered personal property rather than part of a house. For many potential buyers, a solar lease is a liability rather than an asset, and may drive some people away, said Adomatis, who wrote the Residential Green Valuation Tool, a guide offered by the Appraisal Institute trade group.
Solar leases were introduced in 2008 and started to take off in about 2012. As much as as 70 percent of the residential systems being installed now are financed through leases, according to GTM Research. Most of the systems in place remain in the hands of the original customer, suggesting the difficulties in selling these properties are just beginning.
“Some buyers just won’t be on board” with assuming a solar lease, said Nick Culver, a solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in New York. “Even if you save money every month, you limit yourself to a certain subset of buyers.”
SolarCity Corp., the solar installer backed by billionaire Elon Musk with 110,000 lease customers, has transferred ownership of about 1,500 contracts to date and says the new owners typically will continue to enjoy lower power costs. It created an eight-person team that’s handling about 150 transfers a month because of growing demand for the service.
Lower Costs“They’re essentially moving into a home with a lower cost of ownership, a lower cost of energy,” so a solar lease shouldn’t make it harder to sell a house, said Jonathan Bass, a spokesman for SolarCity in San Mateo, California. “It becomes a selling point instead of a point of misunderstanding.”
Scott Vineberg, a SolarCity customer, received multiple offers for the Scottsdale, Arizona, home he sold in January. The lease made the deal more complicated because the buyers were reluctant to take over the contract and asked him to pay off the balance in advance, about 10 years of payments.
“I don’t think they understood it,” said Vineberg. He refused to pay off the lease, and instead provided years of documentation to verify the monthly energy savings. After the sale closed, the buyers opted to pay off the lease, and Vineberg installed another SolarCity system at his new home.
‘A Deterrent’Bishopp had a tougher time. “We had one offer in five months, and they pulled back as soon as they found out about the solar lease,” he said. “It’s a deterrent, definitely.”
The solar panels saved him about $50 a month on power costs. Before the panels were installed, he paid the local non-profit utility, Electrical District No. 3, 11.85 cents a kilowatt-hour for the first 500 kilowatt-hours a month, and 14.35 cents after that. His monthly bill was about $242.
With the lease from SunPower, he paid $160 a month for the 30 rooftop panels and owed another $32 to cover the utility’s monthly minimum charge. Under the lease, he paid 11.5 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity, a rate guaranteed for the length of the contract.
The house sold for $140,000 in March, and the buyer took over the lease with the same rates. Bishopp had initially sought $155,000, and lowered the price three times.
He had to “price the house lower than houses without solar to get people interested,” said Brian Neugebauer, the real estate agent at Re/Max Excalibur who helped sell the property. Potential buyers, he said, were “scared of the solar lease.”
That may change as leases become more common. “It’s going to become a non-issue,” Neugebauer said. “It’s going to be like asking ‘Does your house have lightbulbs?’”
Credit ScoresThere was one more hurdle: to take over the contract, SunPower had to approve the new leaseholder. The buyer’s credit score was a few points short of the solar company’s minimum, and was initially rejected. Bishopp had to persuade SunPower to reverse its decision.
In the “vast majority of cases,” buyers who qualify for a mortgage will also qualify to take over a solar lease, Martin DeBono, a SunPower vice president, said by e-mail.
The company has 20,000 residential lease customers, and fewer than 1 percent have sold their homes. Most of them transferred the lease to the buyer.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the name of SolarCity Corp.)
Eastern States Promote Offshore Wind Systems, but Offshore Systems Are Expensive and High Risk
Anthony Watts / 1 week ago By Steve Goreham
Several eastern US states are planning major investments in offshore wind. Wind turbines are touted as clean, green, and economically sound. But experience from around the world shows that offshore wind systems are both expensive and at high risk for early system degradation.
The governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia have signed executive orders or passed laws to procure offshore wind systems valued at billions of dollars. Officials are eager to win leadership in what is perceived to be a new growth industry. The US Department of Energy has funded over $200 million in offshore wind research since 2011.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a law in 2016 requiring utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind systems over the next 10 years. The law requires that wind systems be “cost effective to electric ratepayers.” But history shows that costs are likely to be far above the New England wholesale market price of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Massachusetts paid solar generators a subsidy of 25 cents per kilowatt-hour during the state’s solar build-out in 2013. Rhode Island’s Block Island wind system, the first offshore system in the United States, now receives over 27 cents per kW-hr, with an annual guaranteed rate increase of an additional 3.5 cents per kW-hr. New England residents must enjoy paying renewable generators more than six times the market price for electricity.
In May of last year, Maryland’s Public Service Commission (PSC) approved electricity-rate increases to fund two wind projects east of the Ocean City shoreline. Maryland’s residents will pay an additional $2 billion over 20 years in increased electricity rates to support the projects. The Maryland PSC claims the systems will create jobs and spur economic growth, but analysis shows that rate payers will pay $200,000 for each of the estimated 9,700 jobs created.
Also in 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced approval of the South Fork Wind Farm off the coast of Long Island, stating “This project will not only provide a new reliable source of clean energy, but will also create high-paying jobs, continue our efforts to combat climate change and help preserve our environment for current and future generations of New Yorkers.”
But are offshore wind systems reliable? Ocean-located turbines face one of the harshest environments on Earth. Turbines are battered by wind and waves, struck by lightning, and need to endure salt spray that is very corrosive to man-made structures.
In February, it was reported that Danish wind operator Ørsted must repair more than 600 wind turbines due to early blade failure. The blades are to be disassembled and brought to shore for repair after only five years of operation, at a cost on the order of $100 million.
Then in March, it was announced that wind turbines at the 175-turbine London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind system, would also need major repairs after only five years of use. Few offshore systems have made it to the end their specified 25-year lifetimes without a major overhaul.
Wind turbines sited off the eastern US coast must survive brutal weather compared to offshore turbines in Europe. From March 1 to March 22 of this year, four powerful extratropical cyclones, called nor’easters, battered our east coast from Virginia to Maine. These storms produced ocean storm surges, large snowfalls, wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour, and even 20 tornados.
Specifications call for wind systems to withstand gusts up to 156 miles per hour, but this isn’t good enough for some of our Atlantic hurricanes. Last September, hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with Category 4-strength winds and destroyed many of the wind turbines on the island.
Strong hurricanes occasionally collide with our eastern coastal states. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 brought Category 3 winds to New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 delivered Category 2 winds along the coast from North Carolina to Maine. Hurricane Carol in 1954 and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 brought Category 3 winds to the shores of the wind system-promoting states.
Finally, the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821 passed through most of the proposed wind turbine sites with up to Category 4 wind strength. The expensive wind systems planned by Atlantic States could all be destroyed by a single well-placed hurricane.
Offshore wind turbines are expensive, prone to early degradation, and in the case of the US East Coast, at risk in the path of strong hurricanes. State officials should reconsider their plans for offshore wind systems.
Originally published in The Daily Caller, republished here at the request of the author.
Steve Goreham is a speaker on the environment, business, and public policy and author of the book Outside the Green Box: Rethinking Sustainable Development.
US set to become major global natgas supplier as exports soar: DOE official
Pittsburgh (Platts)--23 Jun 2016 615 pm EDT/2215 GM
Demand for US natural gas for export -- including both pipeline and LNG exports -- is set to skyrocket through the next few decades, a US Department of Energy official said Thursday, adding the country was on a path to become a top supplier to the international market. "We're going to have substantial increase in pipeline exports to Mexico and LNG exports are going to explode," Carmine Difiglio, DOE deputy director for energy security, said at Hart Energy's DUG East Conference in Pittsburgh.
US gas production peeked last year at an average of around 80 Bcf/d before beginning to decline somewhat. However, the production drop-off is expected to be short-lived as demand for gas for export increases, Difiglio said.
"We expect the growth will resume on a fairly steady basis and reach 83 Bcf/d by the end of 2017," he said.
Difiglio noted that the dramatic increase in shale gas production over the last decade and a half is responsible for growing gas supplies beyond what is needed to meet US demand. Shale gas has grown from being less than 5% of total US gas supplies in 2000 to 56% of supplies today, he said.
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"The Marcellus and Utica shale basins continue to be the most productive for natural gas and especially impressive is the increase between last July and now," Difiglio said.
"Year-on-year growth from 2015 to 2016 was greatest in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and North Dakota, but production was declining in the rest of the United States."
While natural gas prices, which over the past several years have declined substantially in line with oil prices, are starting to come back up, Difiglio said there were signs that the increase would be gradual over the span of several years.
"As production has been maintained and prices have been coming down, our storage now is very high and this will be a factor going forward in price recovery," he said.
Difiglio said that as pipeline imports from Canada decline, the US is poised to become a major gas exporter.
"A number of important LNG export projects are underway," he said, predicting that US gas exports would reach 10 Bcf/d by 2022 and double that volume to 20 Bcf/d by 2040.
"We're expected to become one of the biggest gas exporters by 2022, only second to Qatar."
By comparison, the US in 2015 exported 1.78 Tcf (4.88 Bcf/d), according to the Energy Information Administration.
Difiglio warned, however, that even as US LNG export capacity begins to come online it will do so in a softening international LNG market.
"In Asia, gas prices, the Japanese contract, has come down since the post-Fukushima spreads and now is very similar to European gas prices, but considerably higher than US prices, of course," Difiglio said.
"We expect the spread will come back to more normal levels, with the Asian prices being the highest, Europe in middle and the US prices being lowest, but we're not going to see the kind of spread we saw after the Fukushima [nuclear] accident."
Nonetheless, US exports will be very competitive, he predicted, as US LNG enjoys several advantages over global rivals.
"US LNG projects are brownfield projects; they already have pipeline connections to gas supply, they have marine terminals, relatively efficient transition from regasification facilities to liquefaction," he said.
He noted that in Australia, gas projects are "extremely expensive."
"In Australia they have to have new offshore fields," he said. "They have to have pipelines coming from those fields. They have to have greenfield construction of the LNG facilities."
So although US Henry Hub gas prices are expected to increase from their current levels, prices are still expected to remain very competitive compared with other potential LNG exporting countries, he said.
In addition, the US enjoys a high elasticity of supply, something not found in much of the rest of the world.
"If gas prices rise, production increases, so as we export more LNG the gas to supply the LNG terminals is coming from new production. It's not taking away from new consumption," Difiglio said.
Difiglio also said that despite the substantial decline in international gas prices that is expected to impact the US LNG export market just as it begins to get underway, the global supply/demand picture still favors US LNG exports.
This is reflected in the way that US LNG export contracts are written, which works to the benefit of the customer.
"Firms that decline to take LNG deliveries have to take the tolling cost, the liquefaction cost of the facilities themselves. They're not obligated to pay for the natural gas," he said.
--Jim Magill, email@example.com
How many jobs has the oil and natural gas industry created?
Industry supports 9.8 million jobs or 5.6 percent of total U.S. employment, according to PwC. In 2012, the unconventional oil and natural gas value chain and energy-related chemicals activity together supported more than 2.1 million jobs, according to IHS – a number that’s projected to reach 3.9 million by 2025.
Rapid growth in oil production from shale using advanced hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is creating high-paying jobs and boosting personal incomes in states like North Dakota and Texas. Thanks to development in the Bakken Shale formation, North Dakota boasts the nation’s lowest unemployment rate. North Dakota also saw the nation’s fastest growing income in 2013, at 7.6 percent, due to growth in the oil and gas industry. Oil production from the Eagle Ford Shale has transformed a relatively poor region of South Texas into one of the most significant economic development zones in the nation for the past half decade. In fact, due in large part to the oil and natural gas industry, the Texas Comptroller estimates that Texas has recovered 100 percent of the jobs lost during the Great Recession and has added 597,000 above the previous peak in August 2008.
The U.S. manufacturing sector is being revitalized because of the shale energy revolution, with manufacturers gaining an edge for products made domestically from the use of affordable natural gas and associated feedstocks. The development of America’s vast shale natural gas reserves could add more than 1 million U.S. manufacturing jobs by 2025, according to PwC. A Reuters analysis indicated that low-cost natural gas made a $2.08 trillion contribution to the U.S. manufacturing sector in 2013 alone.
MIT Admits: Electric Cars Are NOT Green, Pollute MORE Than Petrol Cars
November 23, 2017
Electric cars are considered pollution-free as they can help keep our cities and our planet clean. However, a recent study published by the Trancik Lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has revealed that electric cars are NOT as green as you think and are worse polluters than petrol and diesel cars.
The study claims that an electric Tesla Model S P100D saloon produces more carbon dioxide (at 226g per kilometer) than a petrol-driven Mitsubishi Mirage (at 192g per kilometer).
Though the MIT study has shocked green energy advocates, it is not the first time a study is raising concerns about pollution caused by electric cars. In 2016, a groundbreaking study conducted by Norway’s University of Science and Technology concluded that ‘larger electric vehicles can have higher life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than smaller conventional vehicles.’
Independent energy experts have also debunked the ‘electric cars are green’ myth saying majority of the energy that charges the batteries of electric cars comes from the national grid.
In the U.K for example, latest figures by the Digest of UK Energy Statistics show that 51% of energy used to charge electric cars comes from power stations that burn fossil fuels such as gas and coal. Nuclear power is responsible for 21% while just under a quarter of the power comes from renewable sources.
Also, experts say mining the huge amounts of nickel, cobalt and lithium used in the manufacturing of batteries comes at an environmental cost.
According to a 2009 study, nickel was the eighth worst metal to mine and process in terms of global warming and pollution.
Villagers who live next to the Cerro Matoso nickel mine in Colombia have reported higher rates of respiratory diseases and birth defects, the study found. Also, lithium extracted from South American deserts results in one ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of lithium carbonate produced, it added.
Nico Meilhan, a car analyst and energy expert, told the Financial Times:
“If we really cared about CO2, we’d reduce car size and weight. If you switch from oil to cobalt and lithium, you have not addressed any problem. You have just switched your problem.”
Why Big Solar and environmentalists are clashing over the California desert
By Chris Mooney August 15
The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is located on 3,600 acres of public land in the Chuckwalla Valley in east Riverside County, Calif. (Credit: Courtesy of First Solar, Inc.)CHUCKWALLA VALLEY, Calif. – Just after noon on a 110-degree summer day, the 5.6-square-mile Desert Sunlight Solar Farm — the biggest of its kind erected on U.S. federal land — is proving why this desolate spot is such a good one for harnessing the sun’s rays.
With few clouds above, the seemingly endless 8-million-panel array is churning out 551.3 megawatts, or million watts, of electricity, more than enough to power 160,000 homes some 175 miles west of here in Los Angeles.
“This is fairly typical, that as the sun moves through the sky, this is about the time of day that we hit that sort of number,” said Steve Stengel, a spokesman for the plant’s co-owner, NextEra Energy Resources.
Giant solar arrays such as Desert Sunlight not only generate vast amounts of power, but they also do not require any fuel or produce any carbon emissions — advancing the ambitious climate goals of California and the United States alike.
But lately, those lofty goals have run into a more earthly reality — large-scale solar projects require vast amounts of land, land that also is home to many animal and plant species, most iconic among them a slow-moving herbivore called the desert tortoise.
The creature is so highly regarded by the conservation community, and so threatened by climate change, that groups that might otherwise regard themselves as allies of clean energy find themselves at odds with the solar industry. The two sides are squaring off on a U.S. Bureau of Land Management plan to allocate some 10 million acres of public land in the California desert for conservation, recreation and clean-energy installations like Desert Sunlight.
The solar lobby argues that the current draft would throttle the industry’s expansion, making it difficult to meet the nation’s renewable-energy goals. Environmentalists want to preserve “connectivity” between areas of vital species habitat, so that tortoises and other animals can move around and adjust to warming conditions, which could drive them to higher, cooler elevations. For the animals, reaching distant mountain ranges might mean crossing flat stretches where, otherwise, companies might put solar installations.
The resulting proposal would allocate 388,000 acres of federal land for renewable-energy development, while protecting 5.3 million acres for conservation reasons and 3.8 million acres for recreation. (The last two involve some overlap). “Over twice the amount of important desert tortoise lands” would be protected under the plan, the agency determined.
“Why the administration would on one hand call for greater use of renewable energy on public lands as a way to hit carbon reduction targets, while cutting off access to the land needed … is lost on us,” said Dan Whitten, vice president of communications at the Solar Energy Industries Association, the main trade group of the booming solar industry.
The industry’s stance on the initiative — dubbed the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan — has in turn triggered criticism in the conservation world and spurred a counter-mobilization in the plan’s favor.
“We’ve been at this for eight years, the industry has been at the table, and to have these issues come up…at the eleventh hour, seems a bit not only mystifying, but disingenuous on their part for not bringing them up earlier,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of a number of prominent environmental groups backing the plan.
An umbrella species
What’s behind it all is a desert that, far from being deserted, is in high demand — presenting a complex patchwork of urban areas, national parks and monuments, military bases, lands of major cultural significance to Native Americans, and more.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a branch of the Interior Department, has been charged with managing 10 million publicly owned acres of this landscape since 1976, a period that coincided with a steady decline in the population of the tortoise, a long-lived and slow-reproducing reptile that digs telltale burrows in the dry earth to keep cool.
The tortoise is threatened by roads, off-road vehicles, and more — including a changing climate. It is also considered an “umbrella” species because its habitat overlaps with so many others. “By protecting the tortoise, you protect all the other species in the desert,” said Mark Massar, a wildlife biologist with the BLM.
Concern for the tortoise has mounted even as the desert solar boom hit in the late 2000s, buoyed by President Obama’s economic stimulus act and California’s ever-more-ambitious targets for renewable energy, which currently require power companies to get 50 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2030.
The conflicts were epitomized by the Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave Desert. One environmental group, the Western Watersheds Project, sued the federal government in 2011 to stop the project. That didn’t happen, but developers ultimately had to spend millions of dollars to protect desert tortoises at and around the site.
It is in this context that the BLM began a protracted process to apportion the land, collaborating with federal and California partner agencies.
The 550MW Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is located in the Chuckwalla Valley in east Riverside County, California on 3600 acres of BLM land. (Credit: Courtesy of First Solar, Inc.)For renewable energy, one of the largest designated areas lies in east Riverside County, Calif., halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix along the Interstate 10 highway. The region — called the Chuckwalla Valley — is part of a dry and harsh landscape that once supported massive World War II desert training exercises overseen by Army Gen. George S. Patton, who was preparing an Allied invasion force to go into North Africa.
One advantage of this valley is that it contains many hot, low-lying areas that are less-desirable habitat for tortoises, which prefer higher elevations. Even conservationists say they are okay — mostly — with solar installations out here.
“This is a pretty decent area to be what you might call a sacrifice area for solar,” said Joan Taylor, a longtime desert conservation advocate who chairs the Sierra Club’s California-Nevada Desert Energy committee, as she surveyed Desert Sunlight recently.
‘More than enough acres’
The solar-energy industry has moved quickly to lay claim to the area. To the east of Desert Sunlight, near the Arizona border, NextEra is finishing construction on another large array, the two-part Blythe project, a 235-megawatt installation covering more than three square miles. Surrounding the facility are not one but two fences. One of the fences is smaller but extends 18 inches below ground to prevent desert tortoises from burrowing beneath it.
But solar-energy backers fear that finding other suitable sites may be difficult under the federal plan. One charge is that some of the renewable-energy zones overlap with ecologically sensitive areas, such as sand dunes that are home to the Mojave fringe-toed lizard and “microphyll woodlands,” areas of taller trees, such as ironwood and palo verde, that are key for birds.
Danielle Mills, a senior policy adviser for the Large-scale Solar Association, recently toured one of these woodlands, which grow in desert washes that receive occasional flooding, near the Blythe array.
“Companies wouldn’t come here in the first place, but on top of that, there’s a requirement to avoid it,” said Mills, whose organization’s members include NextEra and First Solar, which originally developed Desert Sunlight.
The BLM does not dispute that overlaps exist. Even within designated development areas, “there’s still going to be some sensitive resources that are going to have to be avoided,” said Mike Sintetos, who leads the BLM’s renewable energy program in California. “We acknowledge that.”
But Sintetos said the agency thinks there will still be “more than enough acres available for the amount of megawatts that we think are going to come out of the desert.”
The wind-energy industry is not happy with the plan, either. “I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life. It was like beating my head against a brick wall for seven years,” said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association.
But conservationists counter that California’s two large utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, have voiced support for the plan. And BLM California spokeswoman Martha Maciel adds that by channeling the solar industry to areas that are less conflict-prone, development will be a lot easier and litigation rarer. “It provides them a level of certainty that does not exist today,” she said.
One key point of disagreement is just how much additional solar-energy infrastructure California, and the rest of the United States, will need — and how much should be sited on public lands.
Karen Douglas, one of the California Energy Commission’s five members, argues that the 388,000 acres should be more than enough — especially considering that the solar-energy industry will have the option to develop on private lands, too, and in other parts of the state, such as the San Joaquin Valley.
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She described a scenario in which, assuming that California will need 20,000 megawatts of desert renewable-energy by 2040, 12 percent of the federal lands designated under the plan would supply about 40 percent of the goal. Private lands could then accommodate the rest, she said. “Large-scale renewable energy, especially on public land, is not the only game in town,” Douglas said.
But the solar industry counters that it doesn’t know how much private land will be available. Originally the plan was to work with California’s counties to simultaneously obtain private land and allocate public lands. But later, the plan was split to pursue separate tracks, one factor that is now driving discord.
In the end, the debate marks a clear coming of age for the solar industry, a sign the growing appetite for the energy it produces will begin to conflict with other interests.
“There’s no free ride with energy,” says the Sierra Club’s Taylor. “They all have costs, and large scale solar is among them.”